Dr. Morris Young
Recently my curiosity had been revived as to why the newly constructed house which Houdini was to own had been untenanted for the eight years until he came along to purchase 278 West 113th Street. There have been increasing inquiries as to my knowledge of the lapse of time between the final construction and the date of acquisition by Houdini.
Understandably, the house is being pointed out to tourists as one of Harlem's landmark attractions. Documentaries are giving glimpses of "278" in Houdini biographicals. An image of "278" is to be one of the features in an exhibit scheduled to be toured this year, sponsored by the California Science Center, titled "Magic: the Science of Illusion."
Oddly, what was to be the permanent home for Houdini had been unoccupied since the date that construction was completed, April 30, 1896. According to public records, ownership was conveyed to Erich Weiss (Houdini) on August 11, 1904- "278" was located in what was a German populated area of Harlem, New York City. Houdini became its first tenant.
In his own manner, Houdini had already sent off a letter to the editor of "SPHINX" a magazine read widely by magicians, to tell of the eventful purchase, dated August 4, 1904. He wrote in no uncertain tones that it was the finest home any magician had the good fortune to own. In a more modest vein, he let it be known that he would be leaving for Europe, where he was booked for two seasons. The new "278" address was given for reference.
During the rest of his life, "278" would be his "home quarters". Members of his family would be included. He would have a reception room, private office, library, workshop-laboratory and storage areas. Other than the obvious, there were no reasons given in the letter to the "SPHINX" for Houdini's enthusiastic and precipitous acquisition of "278".
Probing issues of this nature became important by students of the Houdini psyche, especially after his untimely death on October 31, 1926. Mrs. Houdini sold "278" to neighbors John and Filipine Bonano on March 23, 1927. During passing years, Mrs. Bonano claimed that Houdini's spirit had made itself known to her many times in friendly ways. These appearances were credited by listeners as only anecdotal.
Hopefully patient that Houdini might return from a spirit world, Mrs. Houdini agreed to participate in a seance held in Hollywood on Halloween, ten years after her husband's death. Failing to reach him, she announced grimly to the world that she would make no further attempts at what she considered to be impossible. However, there were many others who would not concede to her conclusion.
After Mrs. Houdini's death, "278" became attractive as the place where another seance should be held to attract Houdini's "spirit". Long John Nebel, a well known radio network personality, agreed to devote an entire program to be broadcast, of a seance. Permission to use "278" for a remote pickup was given by one of the Bonano family. All elements of a classic style seance were, conducted by a veteran medium. The psychic was apologetically unsuccessful in contacting the former owner of "278", Stirring the imagination during the proceedings, a small mouse scampered across the floor of the reception room in a westerly direction and disappeared in the woodwork base of the wall.
What Houdini would have thought about having a seance enacted at "278" can be a matter for lively conjecture. Back in his teens, he had attended his first seance out of curiosity. Already well versed in magic, mentalism and escapes from rope ties, he saw through the fraudulent methods used to deceive the audience. Purely business was his reaction.
Later on, in 1898, Houdini and his wife were desperately needing funds in the Midwest. Seances were offered by Houdini as an added attraction for a traveling medicine show. Next, on their own they worked as a psychic and a clairvoyant for a brief period. Mrs. Houdini recalled that her husband was disturbed by the gullibility of the mourning type of clientele which they had to deal with and a feeling of duplicity. Two coincidences that occurred helped influence his decision to denounce a career of that vintage.
Working as a psychic team, Mrs. Houdini had provided accurately the location of the long lost relative of a member of the audience who had been questioned by Houdini. By chance, Mrs. Houdini had recalled the location of a person similarly named and his address in New York City. At another time, Houdini had been able to foretell to a mother that when she reached home, she would find that her son would had been seriously injured. Coincidentally, Houdini, while acting as a psychic had looked out of a window from the room in which he was working, seeing a boy playing dangerously. An impromptu worded prediction was inspired.
Unavoidably, the sordid avenues of psychic research became a major realm for Houdini's indignation. Immediately following the Long John Nebel seance which Mrs. Young and I attended, we found ourselves reluctant to leave "278". We listened to Walter Gibson, a good friend of Houdini, who was also there. Walter kept us spellbound with his descriptions of what had transpired in the house and about the visitors with occult based leanings.
More recently a neighbor of ours who was in his 90's, provided a related anecdote about Houdini in 1924. Twenty years had then passed since Houdini's letter to the editor of "SPHINX" concerning "278". Now, as an international celebrity, Houdini could still not depend entirely on anyone else, even when it came to exploitation of his new book. A friend of ours, Latrobe Carroll, who was an editor of "LIBERTY" magazine recalled answering the phone one day to hear a voice saying in distinct measured tone, "This is Houdini", Houdini told Latrobe about his new book, "A Magician Among the Spirits". Invited to come to Houdini's home to discuss it, Latrobe accepted.
Meeting at "278" offered an environment for relaxed conversation. Latrobe's style of questioning was that of a naive journalist. This was parried with skillful guidance by the host. Latrobe heard about Houdini's experiences as an escapologist who challenged the world. Interspersed were sketches of early involvement with affairs of mediums, seances, mentalists and magicians. These were all subject to influences of illusion to justify conclusions. Concurrent coincidences were also to be reckoned with as supporting evidence of truly psychic insight.
Opportunely for me, Hollywood became the place where the First National Mnemonics Convention was held in 1968 within the area of Mrs. Houdini's final seance. I was the keynote speaker. In those days, mnemonics, the devices of artificial memory, were sheltered by magic as a subspecialty of mentalism. They could be used to perform psychic stunts. Students of magic could read Harry Kellar's "Aids to Arithmetic Calculations" (1903) to learn about phono-numeric applications as magic techniques. Kellar was admired by the world of Houdini as America's leading magic illusionist.
A letter written by Houdini to a magic magazine in 1898 explains a coded method for conveying messages between performer and assistant without the knowledge of the audience. Houdini soon left mentalism for escapology to reach fame in his own right. His name became almost synonymous with handcuffs, However, he would have been welcomed at the 1968 convention to tell about the book he was planning in 1905 to deal with the subject of code and cypher. Never completed, parts only exist as published in a magic magazine of his own creation.
So motivated by Houdini's often expressed interest in mentalism, codes, cypher and coincidence, I became impelled to submit "278" to its phonetic numeral mnemonic implications. Suddenly, "278" resounded in my ears as "han(d)cuff" or alternatively, uncuff. In the system, numerals are given the sound of consonants. 2 equals N; 7 equals hard C or K; 8 equals F or PH, Trying out the system on "113" (the street number), I equals T or D or TH; 3 equals M. In making up words, vowels have no mnemonic value and may be used liberally. W, H and Y are "neuters". Accordingly, "278 W. 113" becomes "Uncuff We Tie Them", the address of the house. Certainly, Houdini had a profound regard for all aspects of manipulation of memory. An unresolved question remains as to whether he was aware of the mnemonic significance of "278" when he purchased the home. As a perennial skeptic, Houdini has bequeathed us with this coincidence: A standard artificial memory system absolutely spells out "Uncuff We Tie Them" as the meaning of a "278", home of "The Handcuff King", Also to be contended with is the notion held by some that the house possessed a power of its own to wait for Houdini!
About the Author:
Member: Occult Investigation Committee, Society of American Magicians, Parent Assembly #1; annual Official Houdini seance presided over by Sidney Radner, protégé of Hardeen (Houdini's brother); Memory Research Center, Hollywood, founded 1968; International Brotherhood of Magicians, Order of Merlin; Inner Circle of the Magic Circle, London; Honorary Board, Houdini Historical Center; pH D. in History and History Science. Co-author with Walter Gibson of "Houdini On Magic", "Houdini's Fabulous Magic" and "How to Develop an Exceptional Memory." Author of "Bibliography of Memory". The esteemed Dr. Young is also on the board of the Houdini Museum in Las Vegas, and sits on the executive board of the Houdini Picture Corporation along with Sidney H. Radner, Thomas Boldt and Geno Munari.